Compassion as it is understood in Buddhism is different from how we usually understand it.
Compassion does not mean taking pity, or feeling sorry for someone else. Compassion is not a warm feeling or any feeling in fact.
Empathy is not compassion. Empathy may make you aware of another’s suffering. Empathy can engender compassion, but is different from it. Compassion could be described as the desire to relieve the suffering of another being. But there is a deeper root/meaning to compassion Buddhist compassion arises from recognising that we are/one is part of a greater whole/universal consciousness/universe. Everything is interdependent and connected. It is to see through and to be aware of the illusion of separation. We experience ourselves as separate from everything else. (There is me, then there is everything else, the universe). This is a persistent distortion and is the root of suffering.
Compassion is something we should and must cultivate. It is the result of practiced contemplations, daily practice and meditations. Buddhist compassion should ideally be without heat or passion. It is objective, constant and universal. It is simply a recognition of the facts which are in front of us yet are distorted by our ego.
For example, it might mean giving someone what they need rather than something they want. It is therefore important to cultivate wisdom through mindfulness, gratitude, compassion, impermanence, metta, so that we can respond wisely.
A compassionate perspective in life means that we understand that all beings want to be happy and avoid suffering. In spite of this, through our ignorance, we often create more suffering and less happiness. Ironically, we usually create suffering in spite of (and sometimes because of) our sincere intentions to feel happier.
The positive impact that a compassionate attitude has on the life of another person is almost incalculable. As a mixed-race child, largely neglected, abused and abandoned, I was the smelly child, with the dirty clothes and the greasy hair. The compassionate attitude of just a few people (a nun, a teacher, a social worker and a Canon) made an important difference to my life.Their acts of compassion ranged from simply seeing me, to making sure that my brothers and I had clothes and food. They all changed my life for the better.
Your compassion is not complete unless you include yourself. Think for a moment. You could travel the whole world and you will not meet another being who deserves your kindness, love and compassion more than you do. These are facts. Self-compassion will give rise to real self-esteem.
Living with a compassionate attitude and perspective has benefits for you and for all other beings:
- You stop taking things personally and you become less egocentric.
- You are kinder to yourself.
- Your relationships improve.
- You have less stress/anxiety
- An enhanced sense of connection
- A calmer mind
If we live consciously with an attitude and practice of compassion there are many situations where there is little one can do (such as a person suffering an illness), in which case we can practice Tonglen. However, life is full of simple opportunities; it might be just an arm around a shoulder, to listen, to really see someone, who knows? playing with a child, the giving of your time.
*Metta means to care and wish well for another being without judging them; to accept them independently of agreeing or disagreeing with them, and without wanting anything from them in return.
**The word “tonglen” is a Tibetan term that translates as “sending and taking.” The practice is part of Tibetan Buddhist teachings called Mind Training. Tonglen, or taking and giving, is a powerful and effective practice for cultivating loving-kindness (*metta) and compassion